The executive director of a non-profit supporting sex workers says a new home in north end Dartmouth will be a “game changer” for the organization.
Alex MacDonnell, the executive director of Stepping Stone, said they just recently finalized the purchase of a two-storey building on Primrose Street in Dartmouth.
The new space is significantly larger than Stepping Stone’s current office. The house has rooms for a drop-in for clients, a donation room, a room for outreach and court support staff, and a private space called The Hive where clients can use the computer for doctor’s appointments and so on. A larger space on the second floor will be used for programs such as art therapy, resume building, and any programs clients request. MacDonnell said renovations will start soon.
On the second floor, there’s a four-bedroom apartment with a kitchen, bathroom, and living room. MacDonnell said she’d eventually like to transform that apartment into transitional housing for clients who may face barriers to housing elsewhere.
“It’s a place the clients can call theirs,” MacDonnell said. “All the staff will be under one roof. It’ll be a holistic wraparound approach. I want it to be a one-stop shop. You can come in if you need court support, you need food. It’s all under one roof. It’s a game changer for Stepping Stone.”
It’s a big move for an organization that started with just two women who didn’t have an office and supported clients by meeting them on the streets. They eventually rented out a space at the YMCA on Barrington Street in Halifax and then moved to office on Maitland Street. Stepping Stone moved again to a space in Dartmouth. MacDonnell said this will be the final move for the non-profit.
“Moving around for our programming doesn’t work well,” said MacDonnell, who’s been the executive director for four years. “It’s something that’s always been in the back of my mind: one, having housing, and two having a permanent location.”
MacDonnell said they had someone help with a down payment to buy the property. Stepping Stone is a client-led organization, so MacDonnell said said they asked clients where they wanted a permanent location. They work with about 350 clients, most of whom live and work in the area.
“We are here because our clients are,” MacDonnell said.
MacDonnell said not all the clients know about the new space, but they will be announcing it soon.
“Once it’s all up and going, including the transitional housing, it’ll be the first organization like this in the Maritimes,” MacDonnell said. “I hope that it makes them proud because it’s their ideas, their input that’s made this. I think it’ll mean a lot to them. It shows we care and support them.”
Stepping Stone has several funders, including the Department of Justice and United Way. As for the transitional housing, MacDonnell said she’s still looking for a funder to get that up and running. That housing will include an office for a support person who will be on site.
“My pipe dream is that it will be a transition until clients can get into longer-term housing,” MacDonnell said. “We’ve had people sleeping in our driveway in their cars. This will be their first step, and very low barrier. We want to make it low barrier, but as safe as possible.”
Stepping Stone is a pro-choice organization whose mandate is sex work is real work. The non-profit supports women, men, and transgender people who are currently or formerly involved in the sex trade. They also advocate for the decriminalization of sex work.
“We just want people to be safe and what that looks like is their own journey,” MacDonnell said. “We meet people where they’re at and we will give them options and support in whatever they need.”
Three nights a week, outreach workers drive around the city to connect with clients who can’t make it to the facility. They offer clients food, condoms, and a “bad date” list that includes details on dates clients should avoid when they’re working.
MacDonnell said Stepping Stone closed down for two weeks in March 2020. But since they are a source of food security for a number of clients, she said they had to find a way to support clients during the lockdowns. They started delivering food, personal hygiene products, cleaning supplies, masks, as well as to information on COVID-19 to clients directly. They also created a crisis line clients could call or text to break up the isolation.
Sex workers also didn’t qualified for the full amounts of supports like CERB because their working hours didn’t count.
“If it was decriminalized and viewed as a profession, then I think there would have been a lot more support for them,” MacDonnell said.
MacDonnell said Stepping Stone needs funding, plus donations, including clothing, personal hygiene products. They’re also organizing a holiday party with dinner and gifts for the clients, their children, and grandchildren. To learn more, visit their website here.